Njerëz Me Shpresa Të Thyera (“Men with Broken Hopes” or “The Vietnam Play,” as I call it) now has premiered and had a reprise. Whether or not there will be other reprises later this summer or year, I don’t know; as director, my work effectively is done. I offer the following as a brief summary of my experience with this production.
I have been asked about my use of the word “SHqIP,” which appears on our poster and several other documents. “SHqIP” is a descriptive, metaphorical title. This play (whose title I cannot pronounce) takes place on a “ship” and is written and performed in “Shqip” (Albanian). The lower-case “q” is the anchor of the ship or a portal or lifesaver in the all-caps poster version.
In my Fulbright grant, I proposed directing a student production, perhaps an original piece that we would create from scratch or maybe a small-scale musical. During the first week of classes, the decision was made that I would direct the senior male actors in their “diploma” production–we might call it a thesis or capstone project. The question then was choice of a play that would showcase the talents of these ten men. We considered The Fantasticks, Waiting for Godot (with double casting), and Twelve Angry Men. Finally, we settled on a two-act play, Shaip Grabovci’s Njerëz Me Shresa Të Thyera, which was written by the father of one of the acting professors. We were given permission to modify the language of the text from official Albanian (“letrare”) to something closer to that spoken by the actors (and audience).
We began on March 5 with a week of improvisations, readings, and then auditions, so I could get to know the actors and their skills. The next week was filled with “table work” as we explored the ways to marry the Albanian-language script and actors with U.S. history and an American director. Combining the two acts and then trimming the text to a more manageable 90 minutes (with no intermission) proceeded very gradually as did our attempts to “stabilize” the language (dialect and pronunciation), so that it would be acceptable to audiences and the acting faculty, who ultimately would evaluate the actors. I never had a final, written, English translation; instead, I relied on sound files with spoken translation.
When we began, my understanding was that we would premiere in mid-May, which would allow us time to travel and perform in other principle Albanian-language theaters in Skopje (Macedonia) and Tirana (Albania). This meant an eight-week rehearsal period, approximately twice what I would have in the U.S. Mentor professors Arbnesha “Buci” Nixha and Hazir Haziri felt that I should rehearse the actors five days each week, since this production substituted for taking a regular acting class. 6:00-8:00 became our regular schedule. As it turned out, we did not premiere until June 1, thus resulting in a total rehearsal period of nearly three months, far too long for a 90-minute production.
Professors Nixha and Haziri attended many of the rehearsals during the first month and assisted with my communication with the actors, who could understand much of what I said; however, regular, two-way conversation really wasn’t possible. During this first month, my own translator, Fjolla Hoxha, attended twice each week. During our second and third months, when Nixha and Haziri shifted their time and attention to the women’s play, Fjolla attended virtually all of our rehearsals. My men and I loved working with her, and she became our de facto assistant director. (In addition to being able to speak fluent “street” English, Fjolla also is finishing her master’s degree in theatre from the University of Istanbul.) Our rehearsals were held at the Faculty of Art in the upstairs acting studio.
“Cultures” of Directing
In much of Europe, the Balkans and Kosova included, the notion of play production is that there are two primary but separate acts of creation: the playwright writes a text which is then interpreted and staged by the director. Both receive equal, top billing on all promo materials. It is understood and, presumably, accepted, even expected, that the director’s interpretation may vary considerably from the original text. For this reason, there is keen interest in and emphasis on the director’s “concept,” which then must be fulfilled by the actors, who may be given x-amount of artistic freedom of their own or, conversely, choreographed by the director.
With my Vietnam actors, some expected to be told what to do; others expected complete independence. Some welcomed my director’s notes; others listened to their notes but then disregarded anything they didn’t like or agree with. Simply put, our notions of what constituted “good” acting often differed: more than any other art, theatre is so subjective…acting especially so. In the studio, the atmosphere was always energetic, passionate, and sometimes argumentative and downright chaotic. (If you know the phrase “herding cats,” then you may apply it here.) Every rehearsal was an adventure and most nights were absolutely joyous; however, the reality remained that I could not speak the language and never could respond adequately to the dialogue and the actors’ vocal choices.
Teach a Man to Fish…
My philosophy and methods of directing a psychologically realistic play boil down to this: the staging must appear and feel natural. I must help the actors “think like actors,” so they can make most of their own character choices. If I were to tell the actors how to do and say everything, then the result would look choreographed and not organic. As I told the men several times during our final week together, this organic approach pays off 95% of the time, and I am willing to sacrifice the other 5% that doesn’t work if the rest feels authentic. This approach demands that the actors become accountable for their own choices. I then, as director, respond to those choices and try to get all of the production elements–especially the actors–into the same scene of the same play at the same time. This approach/philosophy also governs my teaching and basically embraces the old adage:
Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for the rest of his life.
We moved to the National Theatre’s Small Theatre (Skena e Vogël) on Saturday, May 26. I think the fairest but most diplomatic way of describing of what happened for the next six nights would be “challenging.” As a director (and teacher), I work very hard, and I strive to be efficient, communicative, patient, and polite; for me, this is what being “professional” is. For better and worse, the reality of our final “tech” week is that theatre here operates so differently and in ways that I do not and cannot understand. So be it. Fortunately, I had my actors and translator who were there throughout and continued to support me. Without them, I probably would have thrown in the towel.
On the night of the premiere, we were without electricity until the generators were turned on at 7:00. The heat and humidity grew, particularly when we added lights and 120+ audience members and two television crews. (We thought we might be able to hold 100 max.) We began with speeches, and I was presented with a beautiful piece of art made at the Faculty of Art and given on the behalf of the Dean. I so appreciate this kind gesture! Faleminderit shumë! Despite the density of bodies and rising temperature, the audience was attentive and appreciative, and the actors did a fine job, arguably at the quality level of an MFA thesis performance. Yes, there were plenty of actor and technical errors, but what opening night doesn’t have them?! Overall, I was very pleased and proud…and relieved.
Following the performance, there was a reception in the main lobby, and then the professors, actors, and their families moved to the theatre’s cafe, where the next many hours were spent celebrating, toasting, singing…and smoking. This in effect was their graduation. During these hours, I got to meet the actors’ families, who were so proud of them. And rightfully so! I was so touched to see so many fathers moved to tears when I told them how talented their sons are and what good people they are; it was obvious these sons came from good families.
The second night was curiously anti-climactic. Some of the actors were tired; a few were hung over or hadn’t slept at all. Overall, the reprise ran well, perhaps more smoothly than opening night. I was delighted to meet the playwright, Shaip Grabovci,who congratulated me after the performance. Afterwards, everyone just packed up and left, and I wandered home and fell into bed.
Pearl of Great Price
To apply a familiar Biblical analogy, the price of this pearl was steep, but I am so, so happy, honored, and humbled to have had this experience. As I told my men, “I respect you as artists. I love you as brothers.” And I mean it. I will remember and cherish them the rest of my life.